San Diego Something about me must say "gringo" to the dozen taxi drivers awaiting as I emerge from the clanking turnstiles that lead in to Tijuana. Though I'm surrounded by others crossing on foot at about 5:45 p.m., the heart of the southbound rush hour, all of the taxistas seem to be looking at me and asking, "Taxi, amigo?"
I nod to the nearest, a tall mustached man in his early 40s. He leads me to a yellow late-1980s Chevy Caprice parked a few yards away amid a sea of identical yellow cabs. Though the brown fabric bench seat is clean, soft, and springy, the speed with which my driver takes off toward Ninth Street and Constitución Avenue prevents all comfort. I ask his name, and he either doesn't hear me or doesn't want to answer. So I ask why there were only yellow cabs at the border gate. "Because that is our sitio," he answers. "The yellow taxi union owns that lot. Other taxi unions own lots in other parts of the city. But they can't come into our sitio, and we can't go into theirs."
"Then who is that guy?" I ask, pointing at a late-model Toyota Corolla painted white with two horizontal orange stripes painted down the sides.
"Those guys," answers my driver, "are new. They go all over the city. They have no sitio." As we pull alongside the other taxi, I notice the words "Taxi Libre" (free taxi) painted between the orange stripes.
"How do you and the other yellow taxi drivers feel about the taxis libres operating near your site?" I ask. But instead of answering, he turns on a radio broadcast of the Padres game and turns it way up. And he doesn't speak again until we reach the corner of Ninth and Constitución. "Six dollars," he says.
Seems high, but there's no meter in the taxi, so what can I do but be grateful he didn't say 12? I give him the 6 plus a dollar tip and walk a couple of blocks south down Constitución to the Mexicoach bus terminal. Mexicoach runs the red buses that carry tourists back and forth over the border. In the small café inside the terminal I meet Olegario Miller, the general manager of Mexicoach and a 30-year veteran of the Tijuana transportation industry. He's a heavyset man, well-dressed, with bright eyes behind thick glasses. "I think the taxis libres are a good program," he says. "It's a need that a modern city like ours needs. These vehicles are all new taxis, they are comfortable, and it has an honest amount being charged to you. You have a meter, which tells you honestly or exactly how much you need to pay."
The taxi libre system started in 2002 as a project of the mayor's office. Before that, there were two types of taxis in Tijuana. One was the sitio taxis, such as the yellow cabs, that operate from a central site. They pick up fares at the sitio and bring them from there to any place in the city. The other type of Tijuana taxi was route taxis, also known as collective taxis, which drive back and forth on the major boulevards and avenues picking up fares much as a city bus would. They are usually station wagons, built in the 1980s, which their drivers fill with as many people as possible. "The collective taxis are very uncomfortable," Miller says, "because they overload them."
Miller believes that the route taxis are a good part of the transportation system because they offer affordable and timely transportation to the populace. But he thinks there are too many of them working in the city. "The majority of the cities in Mexico don't have the amount of collective taxis that Tijuana has proportionately," he says. "And instead of being these station wagons, they should be larger vehicles that move big quantities of people more comfortably."
Miller feels that the sitio taxis are a good idea as well, though he admits they have a bad reputation "because of the way that they sometimes overcharge. There are a lot of good taxi drivers, but there are also the bad ones that kind of abuse the system and overcharge. And that is the stigma that they have."
All the more reason, he believes, to introduce the taxis libres, which are metered. "We have never had metered taxis in Tijuana, until these new taxis were established. But there is opposition to them because the interests of other drivers are being affected."
The opposition hasn't been in word only. About 300 taxi drivers disrupted an April 11 city council meeting and broke some windows at the municipal government building in the Zona Rio. On April 21, a group of yellow taxi drivers surrounded a taxi libre driver, punched him in the face, and made the two women he was driving get out of the car. In early May, Molotov cocktails were thrown through the window of the municipal Department of Highways and Transportation. And on May 11, taxi drivers blocked streets in the Zona Rio in protest of the new taxis libres.
"The taxi unions are very strong," Miller says. "They are trying to protect their rights, and I believe that their rights should be protected. A lot of families depend on the established taxi system. It's their livelihood. But all of the major cities in Mexico have taxis libres, and I think the mayor and the city government were right to decide that Tijuana should have them too."
To get back to the border, I flagged down a taxi libre, a Nissan Sentra, on the corner of Ninth and Constitución. "Juan Carlos Lemus," the driver answers when I ask his name. Before we start rolling toward the border, he resets the meter lodged in the dashboard. It shows 5 pesos, about 50 cents. "It's 5 pesos plus 3.72 pesos per kilometer," he explains.
Lemos tells me he has driven this taxi libre since the system was started in December of last year. Before that he drove a route taxi, "A big station wagon," he says. I ask which he likes better; in the rearview mirror, I can see him grin. "This one. In the route taxi I made about the same amount of money as I do now, but I drove the same streets over and over again. In the libre, I can go all over the city, wherever I want. The hours pass very quickly. And the gas mileage is a lot better."